At just 16, pianist, composer and singer Ethan Bortnick reflects on a decade in the spotlight.
By A.D. Amorosi
To be a prodigiously talented, critically acclaimed musician at a young age doesn’t always make you above-the-fray as an adult.
Take Ethan Bortnick. Born to Chalfont, Bucks County parents but raised in Florida, this 16-year-old’s piano skills catapulted him into stardom at just three 3 years old. He was composing by 5 and touring by 10. He had his first PBS concert special — but not last, he’s got another one this summer — before he reached middle school, enrapturing listeners with his wide-ranging musical scores that manage to feel tenderly universal without being cloying.
For all the lofty praise this brought him at a young age, Bortnick is as well-adjusted in conversation today as he is on stage.
“Honestly, my goal, since I’ve started, is to make people happy,” says Bortnick. “Whether I continue doing music or not, I want to help people and make them happy. I hope that I always have that desire.”
He laughs at people’s surprise at his down-to-earth temperament. This is, after all, a kid who ran through Bach cantatas when he was barely out of the crib and appeared on Oprah and Jay Leno’s Tonight Show (where he blithely dissed Aerosmith) before he was 8 years old.
“That’s important for me,” Bortnick says. “Keeping a level head is easy because I’m always with my family, and despite everything good that’s happened, I really have had a normal childhood. I’ve been lucky. It’s been a smooth ride.”
Plus, he’s cool with Aerosmith at this point in his life. His original judgment of them stemmed from seeing them at age 8 during his debut concert in Las Vegas. It was the first show he had performed outside of Florida. and he didn’t care for the rock legends’ volume level at the time.
“Now I do,” the 16-year-old Bortnick says.
It’s not all about the art and glamour, though. When he’s not covering Chopin, hanging out with Beyoncé, Andrea Bocelli and Tony Bennett, Bortnick isn’t averse to tossing a football, fiddling with video games and playing with school friends.
“Some days, however, I just want to write a song. Look, I happened onto music accidentally, and just realized how amazing it all was,” he said.
Bortnick attended a Montessori pre-school, back when piano lessons were being offered. Curious to learn but without a musical family — “and I mean, I was 3, face it” — it simply wasn’t in the cards. When he got a toy piano for his second birthday, he began mimicking everything that he heard: television shows, classical recordings, jazz improvisations, all of them with icy precision. It was immediately clear that he was gifted with perfect pitch.
“I got the piano lessons pretty quickly after that,” he said.
He quickly matured from the usual classical catalog of riffs on television and began to find his own voice as a composer, first with 2010’s Ethan Bortnick and His Musical Time Machine. He made his dramatic film debut with Anything is Possible in 2013, in which he co-scored the movie and wrote 10 original songs. He is currently finishing up his next album, one he says that is mostly pop, but surely benefits from his usual jazz, classical and R&B influences.
“To be honest, at 5, I was only just discovering I could make my own sounds. By 10, I was able to experience more and travel more. Those influences seeped in, and the idea of writing about my own life evolved,” he says.
Bortnick can maneuver between soul-pop, Broadway-esque tunes to what he likes to call “spontaneous writing” on stage.
“That’s my favorite, that improvising. I bring someone on stage, they play me their ringtone or tell me a story, and I’ll compose a song from there. I love doing that. I love audience interaction. I just love to write.”
And despite having been in the public eye since he was 3, and that most of his major life moments can be watched on YouTube, he recalls every appearance with fondness.
“It’s never a shock seeing myself on that old footage,” he laughs. “It’s never too weird.” ••